Blame it on his mother, everyone else does. The Chinese artist Song Dong has assembled more than 10,000 items hoarded by his mother over a five decade period. It's all on display at London's Barbican gallery.
Called "Waste Not," the exhibit focuses on the vast collection of Song Dong's mother Zhao Xiangyan, who refused to throw anything away after her husband died. She was an adult during the Cultural Revolution in China when everyone was poor and had to keep anything they could. It was a prerequisite for survival during periods of social and political turmoil. So it's a story of family and childhood memories.
The show, consisting of over 10,000 items has been in eight different cities and in each one it was displayed differently. For this show, the artist's wife, daughter, aunt, and niece have set it up. For them it is a chance to revisit these familial objects and the memories that accompany them. It is a life's work, not a piece of art.
Song Dong spoke at the Barbican about his work and his family. He is 46 years old, born and bred in Beijing. His english was excellent, his manner charming in its diffidence. He said that his mother had been very depressed after the death of her husband. Song Dong felt that his mother had a "need to fill the emptiness" in her life.
In an effort to help her find a new purpose, he proposed that they work together to make her possessions, really the family home, into a work of life. At first she refused; saying that people would think that she was messy. He convinced her by telling her that it would make him famous, so she agreed. A good mother.
The story of the soap was particularly poignant. It was precious during the Cultural Revolution because it was severely rationed. After that time she still kept collecting it, drying the little left over bits in the sun, because she didn't want her son to ever run out of it. She saved it all and gave it to him when he married. So soap is love.
Waste Not is a Chinese adage wu jin qi yong; nothing must be wasted, everything can be reused. Even the old toothpaste containers.
Before the Olympics their house was torn down as part of the general cleaning up taking place. These are the timbers and old windows, which his mother saved, and he has recreated a structure, using them.
The show is received differently in each city. It was first shown in Beijing in 2005. People recognized it as part of their life because during the Cultural Revolution everyone had owned the same things and had the same life. In Europe, because there was hardship during the war, people understood the need for keeping things. In New York there was more a view of it as an art installation. At the Curve, in London, it is a more intimate installation, with references to Chinese landscape.
Ultimately, "Waste Not" speaks of the strong bonds between family members and the power of objects to tell stories and shape our lives.
It's not Song Dong's first time covered here. In 2006 he created a cookie kingdom at Selfridge's department store. Called "City of Biscuits", it depicted a traditional Asian city linked to a more modern city complete with stadium and church. It was created to highlight his concerns over the current development of cities in Asia which he says all look the same.
Song Dong chose biscuits because they look like building blocks and "they are very sweet so you can't eat a lot of them otherwise they make you sick." An estimated 72,000 of them, including digestives, chocolate digestives, rich tea, hobnobs, caramels and fruit shortcake, were used during the week-long project and customers were invited to come and devour them, which they did, on the last day. Song Dong said that they should eat the city so in the end there is nothing.